Saturday, September 5, 2009


View Slideshow Unica Zürn with Bellmer doll, 1954. Photo © Leonore Mau, Hamburg.; Untitled, 1961, ink on paper, 123⁄8 by 91⁄4 inches. Ubu Gallery, New York, and Galerie Berinson, Berlin.;

Unica Zürn has long been a semi-mythical figure. Little known and in many ways unknowable, she is inevitably associated with the Surrealist artist Hans Bellmer, whom she met at a Berlin show of his work in 1953. Obsessed throughout his career with realistic female dolls whose body parts could be endlessly manipulated, penetrated, removed, multiplied, decorated and otherwise reconfigured to posit flesh and bone as the material of a recombinative fetishism, Bellmer had worked and lived with other women before Zürn. (He’d also been married, and had fathered twin daughters.) But upon meeting Zürn he declared, ominously enough, “Here is the doll.”

From that moment on, their fates were intertwined—or, one could say, Unica Zürn’s fate was sealed. She was 37, Bellmer 51, when she moved to Paris to share Bellmer’s two rooms in the Hotel de l’Espérance, 88 rue Mouffetard. There the pair embarked on their own special variation on the Surrealist amour fou. They have been described as companions in misery who inspired each other. No doubt this is true. Zürn’s life before meeting Bellmer was troubled, to say the least. Born in 1916, she grew up in Grünewald, the daughter of an adored but mostly absent father, a cavalry officer posted to Africa, and his third wife, whom she detested. During the Nazi period, Zürn worked as a dramaturge at UFA, the German film company, married a much older man in 1942, bore two children and lost custody of them in a divorce seven years later; she then made a meager living writing short stories for newspapers and radio plays.

She also painted and made drawings in the late ’40s and early ’50s, independently lighting upon the Surrealist technique of decalcomania. Malcolm Green, in his introduction to the English version of Zürn’s novel The Man of Jasmine (Gallimard, Paris, 1971; English translation Atlas Press, London, 1977), describes this period of Zürn’s life as “happy.” She reestablished contact with former UFA colleagues, had what may have been an amiable social life, and enjoyed the work she did as a writer and artist.

One has to wonder, though only to wonder, how much of Zürn’s life transpired above the threshold of the dissociative states and debilitating depressions that later entrapped her. The writings for which she is best known reflect an excruciating mental state, relieved solely by fantasies and hallucinations; reality, in her description, is unbearably harsh and punitive, a realm of grotesquerie in which, she writes in Dark Spring (Merlin, Hamburg, 1969; English translation Exact Change, Cambridge, Mass.,2000), she is “mocked, derided and humiliated.” And while the narrator of that autobiographical novel avers that “pain and suffering bring her pleasure,” Zürn’s inner torment led many times to long spells in mental hospitals, and finally to suicide by throwing herself from Bellmer’s sixth-floor window in 1970, when she was 54.

Like Artaud, Zürn possessed penetrating insight into the nuances of madness without finding any way to escape them. If Bellmer’s idée fixe, amplified by alcoholism, was the female doll, Zürn was focused on what she called “the man of jasmine,” a dream lover and/or father figure incarnated in the poet and artist Henri Michaux, whom she met through Bellmer in 1957, and with whom she took mescaline several times.

Zürn’s drug experiences with Michaux, apparently, precipitated the schizophrenic episodes that recurred throughout her final years. So she, at least, believed, though being trussed with cordage like a slab of meat for a famous series of Bellmer’s photographs may not have contributed much to her psychic equilibrium. As muse for Bellmer’s technically impeccable paintings and drawings as well as his photographs, Zürn underwent innumerable imaginary rapes, eviscerations, mutilations and monstrous transmogrifications, becoming an emblematic pornogram. Willing to be such, she certainly was; in that long ago time, few women could secure even a marginal place in the Paris art world, much less the Surrealist group, except under the auspices of a male artist. And, yes, Bellmer seemed to instinctively comprehend Zürn’s masochistic psychology in each of its twists and turns.

While prolonged contact with the Paris Surrealists might have spurred an effulgence of creative productivity in Zürn, it undoubtedly contained a corresponding toxicity. Given their representation of women as passive receptacles of “mad love,” the elegant reification of female insanity in the writings of Breton and the canonization of de Sade as the movement’s preeminent patron saint, it seems unlikely that a woman with Zürn’s fragile emotional structure could keep her sanity intact very long within the Surrealists’ circle, mescaline or no mescaline.


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